Gunslinging messiahs

Patricia Evangelista
Gunslinging messiahs
Rappler's Patricia Evangelista responds to Ramon Tulfo's May 24 opinion column 'Summary Killings: Who's complaining?' What a death squad does can be called many things. What is forgotten is that it should be called murder.

It begins in a small town, where the dirt roads are empty. It begins in a city, under bleak skies.

The place does not matter, because the plot is the same. People cower behind locked doors. Criminals roam the streets. No one is safe.

Then come the heroes, striding out of the tall grass, riding in from the lonely mesas, racing down the highway in a roar of chrome and steel, the gun-slinging, hard-eyed outlaws fast on the draw and quick on the mark, fearless, merciless, no quarter taken and none given, shooting down the OK Corral at high noon, melting into the shadows of Gotham in the darkest hour of the darkest night.

They’ve seen the world and they know its laws. They believe that the only justice left is justice found at the end of the barrel of a gun.

We’ve heard the story before, and some of us have heard their names. They resonate in cities that are broken, in towns where the laws have failed. It is a narrative seared into the public imagination, the narrative that has elected Rudy Duterte in term after term, that has allowed men like Jovito Palparan to spur the military into a vendetta against communist sympathizers, that has made Manila the stomping ground of Dirty Harry and Asiong Salonga.

It is the same narrative told by Ramon Tulfo, columnist, broadcaster, self-proclaimed action journalist, who appears to believe that vigilante death squads stand in defense of the people. 

Who’s complaining?

Last week, the New York-based Human Rights Watch released a report accusing former Tagum Mayor Rey Uy of creating and financing the Tagum Death Squad, for the purpose of clearing the city of people he called “weeds.”

(READ: Ex-mayor behind death squad in Tagum – report)

Three days later, Tulfo published his column “Summary Killings: Who’s complaining?” on page A-20 of the Philippine Daily Inquirer. He finds it unbelievable that “the mild-mannered and soft-spoken” former mayor ordered the elimination of “notorious criminals,” men Tulfo believes “should be uprooted from society.”

But, he adds, “If Uy was indeed responsible for the killings of bad elements in the city during his watch, so what?

“Who’s complaining, anyway?”

We are told by HRW that the former mayor called his targets weeds. They were listed in an order of battle: petty thieves, drug dealers, street children, criminal elements surviving in the city’s underbelly.  Those on the list would be warned to leave town. Those who returned or chose to stay would be executed within days.

We are told the order to kill would come from the mayor. The weapon of choice was a government-supplied .45 caliber pistol. The killers came in pairs, two to a motorcycle.

One shot to the head, point-blank, and justice was served.

A shot to the head

This is not written in an attempt to condemn the former mayor, or to defend him for what may or may not be an accurate representation of the slew of unsolved killings in Tagum City during his term. That condemnation demands investigation, a call that the government has no right to ignore.

Instead, this is written as a response to the pronouncements of one Ramon Tulfo, and the many others who responded to the news of a death squad with casual support.

There was a time, he says, when criminals ruled the streets of Davao City. Residents stayed home, women feared rape, schoolchildren were robbed, illegal drugs were sold openly.

No one complained, says Tulfo, “certainly not the people of Tagum City, who slept well in their homes at night and walked the streets without fear of getting mugged.”

“And then out of the chaos,” says Tulfo, “A vigilante group brought order.”

He says it was the Davao Death Squad under Duterte that “eliminated the low life and weeds who didn’t stop their activities despite being warned.” The people were happy, business was booming, the city was at peace.

Suddenly, the question of death squads has become less about whether they exist, but if they should.

The politics of naming

In the rhetoric of vigilantism, the enemies are not citizens. They are caricatures, symbols, phantoms that lurk outside the circle of a yellow streetlight: the weeds, the criminals, the low-lifes, the thieves, the drug dealers. Their individual stories are irrelevant in the fight for peace and order. What matters is the drawing of the line, black against white, good against evil, the heroes against the villains. 

It is a shootout, and victory goes to the man with the biggest posse. There is no death squad to avenge the murders of drug dealers and smugglers in Davao. There are no sad stories of the mothers who discover their sons murdered in empty parking lots. The fact that a 9-year-old suspected thief named Jenny Boy Lagulos was found with 22 stab wounds may affect some, but in the battle against crime, his death is the death of an enemy combatant.

Any just crusade demands the naming of its enemies. In a democracy, it means a trial in a public court. It demands evidence and affidavits, context and intent, the right to a defense and the claim to an appeal before men and women accountable to the rule of law. The target of a death squad is always a man unable to defend himself against allegations, a man deprived of his day in court, sentenced by an arbitrary voice that is judge, jury and executioner all at once.

It is why the idea of a death squad fails its very purpose. The core of vigilantism is the certainty that the enemy is always guilty, but there is no certainty of guilt once due process is absent. It is difficult to believe a single mayor, a single police chief, a single man untrained in the ways of the law can determine guilt or innocence after a day’s surveillance resulting from a complaint to a public hotline.

Yet the decision is made, and the penalty is execution. It is a punishment that is absolute, without recourse or appeal, without space for error or the opportunity for reform, sustained in spite of the fact this is a country that bans the death penalty. Justice demands that punishments fit the crime, and yet there is one punishment for the targets of a death squad. A laptop thief, a drug dealer, a pickpocket, a rice smuggler – all of them are punished in the same final, irrevocable way. 

The argument against death squads is not that they are prone to abuse. It is that their existence is abuse in itself.

Protest to power

To say death squads are dangerous is not to say that there is no reason why people seek them. People die, brutally. Women are raped. Merchants are robbed, residents live in fear, policemen are corrupt, and the legal system is a convoluted maze that has a tollbooth at every turn.

They are called brave, these vigilantes. They fill the vacuum that the failure of law and order has created. They loom large in the imagination, bold, defiant, the cigarette placed just so, the rakish grin crooked, the sound bites carefully casual before the dirty finger is raised to the camera.

The same romantic mythology of the gunslinger hides the fact that the death squad hero is himself a coward, unwilling to fight a failing system, content with the quick kill that does nothing to change the conditions that created the criminal. For a small pocket of time, there is some pretense of justice, some semblance of safety, until the people realize that in the end, anyone can die in the hands of a vigilante.

What a death squad does can be called many things. It can be called revenge. It can be called justice. What is forgotten is that it should be called murder.

The endorsement of death squads is consent for righteous violence. Without law, morality and ideology can justify any punishment – the torture of communists, the rape of prostitutes, the serial deaths of gay men. All that a vigilante has to say is this: I did what I thought was right.

We, the people

In the 1990s, says Tulfo, there was a rash of bank robberies in Metro Manila.

“Police arrested robbers who posted bail, then started robbing banks again.

Many of these criminals were acquitted either because the judges were paid off or prosecutors, who were bribed, filed weak cases leading to acquittals.”

In the story Tulfo tells, there was a police official so enraged by the impunity of criminals that he decided to organize a death squad aimed at eliminating corrupt judges and prosecutors.

The would-be vigilante changed his mind, says Tulfo, “but the citizens would have benefited if he hadn’t. A corrupt judiciary is responsible for the spread of criminality.”

He is correct that a corrupt judiciary fuels crime. And yet there are many reasons responsible for the spread of criminality. Among them are men who preach that justice can be measured by the distance a bullet flies from the gun.  – Rappler.com

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